Birdsafe California Bird Nerds

By Laura LaFay

newspaper clipping
Newspaper coverage of Rita's kidnapping helped bring the African grey parrot home.

THIEVES SCALED a concrete fence topped with barbed wire during a fierce storm to break into a South Florida parrot farm. Next, they made their way over a live electric fence and poisoned and shot half a dozen guard dogs. Using wire cutters to slice open outdoor cages while holding tiny flashlights in their mouths, they abducted 122 parrots, including African greys, African Jardine's, a variety of Amazons and a 35-year-old cockatoo.

With the rain, wind and thunder muffling the sound of their screams, the birds were stuffed into bags and taken. The next morning, the victimized breeder and her husband woke to a chaos of wet feathers, dead dogs and unspeakable loss.

"It’s a terrible thing to go through, it really is," she recalled recently. "Some of those birds had been with us for years. They were like my children. I took it very personally. I was determined to find the people who did it."

More traumas to come
Because of initial police indifference, the breeder and her husband hired three private investigators, one of whom tracked eight of the birds to a Miami pet shop. This discovery kindled the interest of the police who then set up a sting operation. Because the breeder had microchipped her birds, she was able to enter the shop, purchase them back, and take them outside to the parking lot for police scanning. Once they were identified as hers, officers entered the shop and arrested the owner for selling stolen property.

Those eight, however, were the only birds she ever got back. And there were more traumas to come. By the time the case was over, the pet shop owner who purchased the birds had been run over and killed by a car in front of his shop. Another witness ended up dead in a South Florida canal. And two people were convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to prison time.

Rita today is circumspect about strangers, says owner Steven Keltz. "She hides in her cage."

Even now, after several years, the bad blood and paranoia engendered by the incident lingers. The breeder is afraid to have her name published in this story. When her birds were first stolen, she said, she researched every bird theft in the Miami-Dade area for the previous three years and found that they all shared a common denominator – the same vet. Her vet.

"You can't trust anyone," she said. "You have to be very careful. We have a different vet now. We have a different security system now. I advise everyone to have a good security system. If you can't afford a good security system, you can't afford to breed birds."

Florida hot spot
The combination of tropical weather and proximity to the Port of Miami has made South Florida a kind of center for exotic wildlife in the U.S. Parrot breeders, pet shops, avian vets and individual parrot enthusiasts abound. In recent years, thieves have increasingly victimized all.

"Because of the weather here, even pet birds are outside," said Dr. Thomas Goldsmith, a Pinecrest Fla. avian veterinarian whose article, Aviary Security and Theft Protection, can be found at

"Most thefts are planned and intentional, and you never know who might be behind them. (It could be) someone who did some landscaping or came to repair something and noticed you had birds.…There are people who make a living out of this."

A good living, apparently.

"When you deal with birds and other wildlife, you’re dealing with a lot of money," said Eddie McKissisk, an investigator with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department. "The illegal trade in wildlife is second only to the illegal trade in drugs. It used to be drugs guns and wildlife, in that order. Now it’s drugs, wildlife and guns."

And not just in Florida. Parrots are stolen everywhere. In general, experts say, there are three kinds of thefts: large-scale assaults on breeding facilities, pet store thefts and thefts of individual birds from homes. Most of these incidents share a common trait, according to McKissisk: they are committed by thieves filling orders.

"The majority (of thieves) have specific buyers lined up before they steal the birds. They don’t want the hassle of caring for them. They don't want to spend any of their profit feeding them."

Ironically, noted McKissisk’s colleague, Investigator Jennifer English, most of the buyers of stolen birds, like most of the victims, are breeders and pet shops.

"They are the victims of these crimes, but they also keep it going," she pointed out.

"Wanna-be breeders" and people who are just starting out are frequent customers, according to Goldsmith. "No one's ever going to sell you good breeders. So this is a short cut," he said.

'Just a lost animal'
Another incentive for bird thieves is the relative indifference of law enforcement. Abducted birds are classified as stolen property – not a high priority in most jurisdictions. Adding to the apathy is the fact that birds taken by professionals are often quickly moved out of the state from which they were stolen. Sometimes they are even sold outside the U.S. This makes them almost impossible to find.

Finally, even if found, most birds cannot be positively identified unless they are microchipped. Leg bands are routinely cut off, and the fact that a bird says certain phrases or repeatedly yells the name of the family dog apparently does not impress most police as a definitive identification.

In the final equation, victims say, police generally regard stolen bird cases as simply not worth their time and effort.

"They were no help to me at all," said Sherrie Hendricks, whose yellow-naped amazon, Mariah, was stolen by someone who cut open her outdoor cage in Phoenix four years ago.

"Their attitude was: 'It's just a lost animal.' Then I called the local television station, and half an hour after the segment ran, I had a police officer at the door."

Hendricks plastered Phoenix with posters of Mariah, notified veterinarians and pet shops and posted notices on the Internet. During her search, she said, people began calling her to say that, while they didn't have Mariah, they had another bird they didn't want. Did she want it? This happened so often, Hendricks said, that when she and her husband moved away from Phoenix two months after Mariah's abduction, they left with 17 unwanted birds.

Now living in Waco, Texas, the Hendricks run a Web site dedicated to Mariah from which they sell bird toys to help care for 50 unwanted birds they have dubbed "Mariah’s Misfits." Hendricks still weeps when she talks about Mariah, and keeps an empty cage on hand just in case.

Leg bands are routinely cut off, and a bird that says certain phrases does not count as positive identification.

"I'll always look for her," she said. "When Elizabeth Smart was found, I just went crazy, jumping up and down. Miracles can happen. And if miracles can happen for people, maybe they can happen for animals, too."

Rita comes home
In the case of Rita, an African grey Congo parrot stolen from her Miami-area home in August of 2001, a miracle did happen. Rita had been missing for 12 days, during which her owner, Steve Keltz, canvassed the neighborhood, distributed and posted flyers, offered a $500 reward, checked pet shops and flea markets and ran an ad in The Miami Herald.

Finally, the day after a local reporter wrote a human interest story about the theft, Keltz got a call from a "Mr. Ferguson" who said he had purchased Rita for $50 from a man carrying her in a paper bag.

"I called him back and got to the address he gave me as quickly as I could," said Keltz. "Rita was in a cage on the front porch, and as soon as I got there, she started calling me. There are no words to express how I felt when I realized it was really her."

Although Keltz never learned who stole Rita, he believes it was someone who saw her when viewing his house. For this reason, he advises home sellers to relocate their birds while showing their homes. He also counsels anyone with a lost or stolen bird to try to get the media interested, "even if it's just a small local paper." And "don’t give up hope. As in our case, sometimes miracles do happen."

Cookie Monster's happy ending
The story of Cookie Monster, a $15,000 hyacinth macaw stolen last July from a Virginia Beach pet store, also had a happy ending.

Two days after she was stolen, Cookie Monster was found dumped in some bushes across a four-lane highway from Animal Jungle, the store from which she was taken. Lori Bell, Animal Jungle's bird manager, credits technology and the media.

"We went on all the Web sites," she said. "We listed her on all the stolen bird listings. We notified our vet. He listed her on the avian vet network for the U.S., Mexico and Canada. It was worse than a presidential abduction because everyone knew this bird and knew she had been stolen. The people who took her must have realized they couldn't sell her. They couldn't keep her. They couldn't do anything with her anywhere. You can't hide a hyacinth macaw."

Cookie Monster's abductors either lacked a pre-arranged buyer or had a pre-arranged buyer who got cold feet due to widespread publicity about the theft, speculated Bell.

"I hope she bit them," said the bird manager.

Cookie Monster, gone for only a brief time, seems unscathed by her ordeal. But many stolen birds do not recover easily and may develop biting, plucking and behavioral problems that cause them to be passed from owner to owner. Such birds can end up in rescues or worse.

"You cannot take a child or a bird away from its parents, give it to someone else, and expect it to thrive, said Goldsmith. "These birds suffer tremendously."

Laura LaFay shares her home in Richmond, Va., with two monk parakeets, Gaspard and Coco.. Published 2003. All rights reserved


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